Bernie’s Secret Weapon in Iowa
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because political operatives come in all shapes and sizes.
Becker swears he always introduces himself as “Robert Becker, first and last,” yet everyone calls him Becker. And by everyone, we mean people from Indonesia to Iowa and many places in between. Even his email handle is an all-caps BECKER. (“Who does that?” asks a prominent consultant, a touch of envy in his voice.)
Becker, 47, is a globe-trotting, lifelong organizer who’s presently the Iowa state director for Bernie Sanders’ campaign. He is burly, well over 6 feet, and as terse as the Marlboro Man, with a smoking habit to match. Unlike the smooth talkers who populate most campaigns, Becker is all gravelly bass. He didn’t go to college and he doesn’t aspire to some posh, strategic post. Instead, the son of a firefighter stumbled into organizing when he was barely out of his teens, knocking on doors in Texas for an environmental group and getting pumped about fighting the system. His trajectory since has taken him to places like Des Moines (three times), northern Virginia, Zimbabwe, Haiti and Egypt, where he was nearly imprisoned in the turmoil after the Arab Spring.
It’s pure, raw, red-meat adrenaline fire, what he does.
“There are certain folks that stick out, and Becker is one of them,” says Brent Roske, a TV journalist and filmmaker who spends his days and nights reporting on and hobnobbing with Des Moines’ political class. Plenty of strategists look like they stepped off a West Wing set, with their Ivy League degrees and hopes of landing a spot near the Oval Office. Becker doesn’t want that. He “just does things differently,” says Roske. “It’s pure, raw, red-meat adrenaline fire, what he does.”
Most conversations about Becker circle back, at some point, to his trials in Egypt. He landed in Cairo in 2011 at time of promise, a few months after the revolution, to work with the National Democratic Institute, a nongovernmental organization affiliated with the Democratic Party. Becker’s job was to train members of political organizations. All was well until the government became suspicious of outsiders and accused NDI employees, among others, of sabotaging the regime. NDI recalled its American employees home. Becker refused. He stuck around for 18 months of criminal hearings, appearing with his Egyptian co-defendants in a courtroom cage every few months. Only after he was convicted and sentenced to two years — and his staff got suspended sentences— did Becker flee. “I got lucky in that I withstood a trial and was still able to get out,” Becker says.
That episode, colleagues say, demonstrated some of Becker’s best qualities: stubbornness, loyalty and an ability to risk everything for political belief. “Anyone that’s willing to sit in jail for an idea — he’s the clearest example of the cause guy out there,” says Pete D’Alessandro, an old hand in Iowa’s caucuses and the guy who hired Becker for the Sanders campaign last year. Or, as Timothy Connolly, a former State Department official who’s worked with Becker on various campaigns, puts it, “He risked imprisonment rather than risk the safety of his staff in Cairo.” Some observers have even tried to link the Egyptian revolution with Bernie Sanders’ own call to “join the political revolution,” as though Becker were going from one uprising to the next. Becker doesn’t like the through line. He has Egyptian friends who are still in jail, at least one in solitary confinement. “Nobody’s dying in this revolution,” he says, referring to the campaign.
Not that Becker pooh-poohs his own work — “I wake up every morning with one of the coolest jobs on the planet,” he says — and whatever he’s doing seems to be working. On the eve of the caucuses, the Sanders campaign is ascendant, and the polls show the Vermont socialist neck and neck with his main rival, Hillary Clinton. Inside the campaign’s Des Moines headquarters, wedged between a Hy-Vee grocery and an Aaron’s discount furniture store, the vibe is amiable and productive. Staffers and volunteers make calls, clack away on laptops or just hang out. The main goal is to ensure that every Sanders supporter in Iowa gets a phone call or a personal visit reminding them to caucus. Though there are bags under his eyes, and something like a beard growing on his face, Becker seems optimistic, perhaps even relaxed.
Since June, Becker’s been living in a little three-bedroom house with other staffers, close to the office. But his permanent residence is the warm, sunny beach town of Vieques, in Puerto Rico. When the campaign is over, and Becker hopes it won’t be soon, he might take a break and then move on to the next place, who knows where. Becker was married for a time in the 1990s, but “it didn’t work out, mostly because I was never home.” With nine nieces and nephews, he says, “I figure my family’s done its part to repopulate the world.”
But enough about Becker. He’d rather discuss his man Bernie, or the Iowans he’s met, or the secret musical talents of his staff, or why tax credits don’t really help the working class.
Then comes a happy little pandemonium. “It’s Ben and Jerry!” someone shouts; the founders of the ice cream company have stopped by toting illuminated Bernie signs and talking up a new flavor. The slab of chocolate at the top of “Bernie’s Yearning” represents the one percent, says Ben Cohen, and you have to take a soup spoon and smash up the chocolate to get to the ice cream beneath.